Conversations this week on the UBC campus were all about birds, as 1500 ornithologists from around the world congregated for the 5th North American Ornithological Conference (NAOC-V 2012). It was an amazing intellectual experience listening to dozens of presentations, viewing hundreds of posters, and meeting international bird scientists of all ages. The sheer number of topics was incredible: from the global impacts of climate change on neotropical migrants to the effect of ocean noise on Pacific wrens, and from the historical perspectives on warbler evolution to the use of radar in tracking tree swallow roosts. Younger scientists had conducted carefully thought out experiments to test their predictions, while their supervisors and elders synthesised studies and moved towards the big picture: what does this mean for the global future of birds?
B.C.’s Kathy Martin and her committee did a great job of organizing the conference. Each of the four days, Tuesday through Saturday, started with a plenary session in the Chan Centre that everyone attended, and after a coffee break there was a choice of ten concurrent sessions, each lasting 15 minutes, followed by another set of ten sessions and so on, through the day. The sessions were continuous and in three locations, so all the delegates had to earnestly study the program book to make their choices ahead of time and make sure that they were viable. I found myself breaking the woman’s speed walking record a few times as I tried to get between buildings in time. I found the sheer intellectual effort of listening almost non-stop to detailed presentations, even though they were all delivered with great interest and panache, stretched my brain to near breaking point! So I occasionally took a break, strolled around the hundreds of posters displaying yet further bird studies or checked out the exhibits. There were social events, too, of course (baseball game – US vs Canada, 5km race, quiz night, bird band jam, opening reception and last night banquet), and for us early risers: early morning birding at Wreck Beach and Pacific Spirit Park.
After four intense days, I came away from the conference with an enormous appreciation for all the enthusiastic, smart, engaged students and scientists who are studying the world’s birds. I was impressed with the results coming form the many new technologies available for tracking, measuring and assessing bird populations and the integrity of the scientific method for delving deeper, answering questions, searching for the truth. It was good to see basic science being undertaken, funded by foundations, universities and non-profits, and untainted by commercial bias. I appreciated the concluding plenary of Peter Marra from the Smithsonian, stressing the cyclical nature of life and the need to consider all stages of the bird’s life cycle, a theme picked up and expanded on during one of the closing symposia. Ian Davidson of Nature Canada, gave the hemispheric perspective on neotropical bird conservation and challenged the scientists to work more closely with conservation activists, land managers and local communities to implement the results of their academic findings.
It was a fascinating conference. A pity the mainstream media failed to connect.